Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Book Reviews

You Can’t Go Home Again

The uses of nostalgia.

Charlie Tyson

Classic car night at Mickey’s; Hympi/Alamy Stock Photos.

Not long ago I was dawdling in a wood-beamed general store in the Hudson Valley when I felt it, the old ache. Gleaming on the shop counter were the sweets of my youth. I don’t mean this metaphorically: I was standing in front of an enormous display of candy. There were brands I had not seen, much less tasted, since the 1990s. Blow Pops, Airheads, Gushers, Laffy Taffy—dozens of familiar candies in neon wrappers spilled toward me in a garish sprawl. I felt a satisfying twinge, as if a sweet sticky rope of some caramelized concoction were pulling insistently against my teeth. Pulling, and pulling me back to childhood—to gluttonous Halloweens, to wealth measured out in Milk Duds and Kit Kats, to chewy confections whose bright colors and sugary tang bore little relation to any of the earth’s known fruits. Such simple pleasures! And the fact of a general store at all—could one ask for a more charming relic, a more idyllic emblem of small-town Americana?

Nostalgia is a debased emotion. Intellectuals scorn it; corporations exploit it. Therapists instruct us to live in the present moment. Yet only the most austere and bloodless temperaments seem immune to the lure of times gone by. All the same, this sentimental yearning for an irrecoverable past is widely dismissed as regressive and reactionary. When we give in to nostalgia, we do not simply remember the past. We distort it, idealizing and whitewashing whatever lost era we wistfully recall. In projecting our desires onto the past, we bury historical reality—and the many forgotten people who lived, suffered, ate, had sex—in clouds of perfumed mist. Like the candies spread on the shop counter, nostalgia is unhealthy, artificial, kitsch. And sweet, too sweet.

Nostalgia’s bad reputation is the main theme of scholar and writer Tobias Becker’s Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia. Across several cultural domains—politics, fashion, film, architectural preservation, heritage museums, battle reenactments—Becker finds that nostalgia is a near-universal pejorative. The charge of nostalgia is a convenient insult to hurl at a political opponent, or a protester blocking the Victorian building you’re trying to bulldoze. Vintage fashions (rose-pink bridesmaids’ gowns from the flea market, platform shoes from the back of your aunt’s closet) or films that pay tribute to another era (Bonnie and Clyde, The Way We Were) can be hailed as “retro” (an ingenious appropriation of existing material) or condemned as “nostalgic” (indicating that the culture is out of ideas). Historians, meanwhile, wield accusations of nostalgia as a method of professional gatekeeping, suggesting that costumed reenactors or family ancestry enthusiasts are approaching the past in an unserious (which is to say, uncritical) way.

Our thinking about nostalgia is badly flawed, Becker proposes, because it relies on defective assumptions about progress and time. Attacking nostalgia, he claims, is often a surreptitious way of defending a naive belief in progress. If you think the world is getting better and better, then a longing for the past seems bigoted or baffling. Who would want to turn the clock back and go from better to worse? This belief in embedded progress is allied, according to Becker, to a view of time as uniform and linear. Quoting the social theorist Bruno Latour, Becker encourages us to think of time as less like an “irreversible arrow” and more like a “plate of spaghetti.” The past is perpetually “recombined, reinterpreted, and reshuffled,” Latour ventures; it loops around and doubles back on the present. All this may sound like postmodern esotericism, but the idea of the past overlapping and entwining with the present is not some recent import from French theory. The rabbinic scholar Lynn Kaye has found a similar temporal flexibility in the Talmud (for example, in the Passover rituals with which Jews attempt to merge the present with the long-ago events of Exodus). More plainly, we can see in the built environment of any city the commingling of past and present.

The upshot is that what we might interpret as an exercise in nostalgia is often postmodern pastiche. That Hudson Valley general store that sent me, trembling and Proust-like, back to the sugar rush of happier days? It opened its doors, I later learned, in 2019.

From the start, nostalgia has been treated as pathological. The Alsatian physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in 1688 to describe a painful, even deadly, form of homesickness. The concept gradually shifted to denote yearning for a lost time rather than a lost place. After World War II, according to Becker, nostalgia dramatically resurfaced: still pathologized, but suddenly ubiquitous. The way people in the West related to the past seemed to be changing. The historic preservation movement gained steam, blocking, for instance, the demolition of New York’s Grand Central Station. Thousands of new museums were founded in Britain, the United States, and West Germany. A subculture devoted to reenacting American Civil War battles emerged, both in the United States and, curiously, England. The futurologist Alvin Toffler declared, at the beginning of the 1970s, that American society was succumbing to a “nostalgia wave.” Numerous theorists identified nostalgia as a fundamental ailment of modernity—indicating a desire to return to a slower pace of life, or a wish for roots, in response to a world characterized by speed, flux, and dislocation.

One might think that this widespread longing for a simpler time would be ripe for exploitation by politicians, especially those of a reactionary bent. How else to explain Donald Trump’s bellowing call to “Make America Great Again,” a slogan itself cribbed from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign? And Reagan, so gifted at evoking a shared past, looking for all the world like an apparition from the 1950s, personifying the domestic comforts of General Electric Theater and those calm days before Woodstock, swingers, the Civil Rights Act, and the Great Society: Surely this is the politics of nostalgia.

Becker’s surprising argument is that even among right-wing politicians, nostalgia is usually disparaged. Conservative appeals to nostalgia tend to be fleeting and strategic. Margaret Thatcher was, for a time, fond of talking about “Victorian values.” Being raised by a “Victorian grandmother,” she divulged, taught her to “work jolly hard.” During the Falklands War, she peppered her speeches with references to Winston Churchill and the glories of the British Empire. Yet she also cut funding for museums and, in one spectacular gimmick, posed atop one of the bulldozers razing London’s Broad Street Station (built in the 1860s). For Thatcher and Reagan, the “comforting language of tradition” helped them present a radical and disruptive program of deregulation and privatization as a return to the past. But it was a ruse that could be discarded at will. Reagan himself used the word “future,” Becker reports, more often than any other term except “America.”

Nor are accusations of nostalgia lobbed only against the right. Proponents of Brexit spoke little about Merrie Olde England. They instead accused the Remain camp of being mired in a backward-looking fantasy of a unified Europe. In politics, the charge of indulging in nostalgia appears most commonly as a cheap insult, an attempt to discredit an opponent as out of touch. Fed up with all the disingenuous polemics, Becker leaves readers in the unusual company of a scholar insisting that we talk about his subject less. “It would be best,” Becker declares, “if the term nostalgia could be struck from the political vocabulary altogether.”

Reagan wasn’t the only midcentury cultural phenomenon to return with a vengeance two decades later. The rejuvenation of doo-wop and ’50s-style rock and roll, the ’50s-inspired punk fashions of Vivienne Westwood, and such films as American Graffiti and Grease all contributed to the sense that the 1970s were overrun with nostalgia for what one pundit called “one of the blandest decades ever.” Becker traces a pattern of pop-culture revival: the ’70s replay the ’50s, the ’80s remix the ’60s, and so on. The rapidity of the cycle provides at least superficial evidence of social acceleration. “After a mere fifteen to twenty years,” Becker notes, the 1950s “already felt like the distant past.” Again, he finds that charges of nostalgia and cultural exhaustion are mostly hot air. Throughout the postwar period, youth culture was an engine of revivalism. The rise of the retro does not reflect wistful longing so much as the creative use of prior cultural artifacts.

Sensitive to thoughtless applications of “the nostalgia label,” Becker is excessively cautious. He offers no principles for judging when aesthetic objects might reasonably be classified as nostalgic, instead remarking that “whether a revival was nostalgic or not lay in the eye of the beholder.” Maybe so, but who could describe Gone With the Wind as retro?

“By an optical illusion,” the great historian Jacob Burckhardt once reflected, “we see happiness at certain times, in certain countries…. Whole epochs, too, are regarded as happy or unhappy.” Such judgments result, he suggested, “from a kind of literary consensus,” and while this consensus tells us much about the desires of the period that produces it, it tells us little about history.

Burckhardt was right in concluding that our search for happiness in other times and places can block historical insight. But nostalgia has other uses. At a sufficiently distant remove, its glow can illuminate ideals for more humane living. (Think of John Ruskin and William Morris, who saw in the Middle Ages a model of labor far freer and more creative than what the nineteenth century provided to its degraded working classes.) And for the multitudes of people who are victims, rather than agents, of historical change, nostalgia can offer a partial escape when all other routes have been blocked. “Ah yesterday,” intones Samuel Beckett’s Nell. Nagg and Nell, the decrepit parents in Beckett’s Endgame, have been reduced to living in trash bins begging for pap. The play’s larger atmosphere is a postapocalyptic hellscape. For Nell, there is no future; all happiness resides in the past. “Ah yesterday,” she says again. Nostalgia greets us when we are most desperate. A way of coping with a present that is no longer habitable, it provides, in the end, a last resort.